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Ancient Grains: The Best of the Best

Updated on September 16, 2013

Ancient Grains: A Bandwagon to Ride

It is difficult to pick up a food or recipe magazine these days without finding a handful of articles about so-called 'ancient' grains. These grains are celebrated for their healthfulness, most containing surprising amounts of protein, fiber, and iron. With the rise of Meatless Mondays and a trendy turn toward unique and unusual ingredients, even those not partaking in a vegetarian or vegan diet full-time can reap the benefits of these grains. But what are these grains, and-- most importantly-- which ones taste the best?


The Real-World Test

In our home, we eat vegetarian or vegan at least five days a week. And as the sole chef in our kitchen, it falls to me to devise and execute a menu that appeals to three palates: I grew up eating New England homestyle dishes like pot roast and baked beans; my husband grew up in India ingesting spice and heat; and our daughter shows a penchant for almost everything, so long as she can pick it up with her hands.

But while I'm open to trying almost anything and pride myself on a diverse menu, I was finding myself in a carb rut, alternating between rice and pasta. Despite buying whole wheat pasta and switching to brown rice, I knew we could do better. I had experimented with quinoa, the most well-known grain on the market, and we had mixed results. I hadn't seasoned it properly or cooked it long enough, and the crunchy bland piles of otherwise pretty grains left us feeling blah. But it was time to try again.

Inspired by the many options available in every grocery store I have frequented lately, I gathered three pouches and set out to fortify our diets with wholesome goodness. My first adventure was with wheatberries, brown, whole wheat kernels that require a long cooking time. My first batch cooked for the required hour and could have used a little more time than that. The mouthfeel is chewy but not entirely unpleasant. It meant that we had to slow down and chew thoughtfully, a common suggestion for those trying to curb overeating. Wheatberries did not expand much during their low boil, but because we tended toward eating a smaller portion, the quantity was not much of an issue as I expected. The iron, fiber, and protein of wheatberries is a stellar addition to any diet, except those who require gluten-free foods; with wheat in the name, this just isn't going to meet the needs of the gluten intolerant.

Our second grain attempt was millet, a grain whose name will forever remind me of bird food but whose versatility and ease of cooking make up for it. Millet is a pale grain the color and size of its better-known cousin, couscous. Millet, unlike fluffy and delicious couscous, is gluten free and loaded with protein, fiber, and numerous other vitamins and minerals. It is a fantastic alternative to wheat-based pastas and a fast-cooking grain. In twenty minutes, millet absorbs all of the liquid in the pot. It has a grittier texture than wheatberries, and if you expect it to be fluffy and light like couscous, you will be disappointed. But millet is a super grain that can cut down on mealtime prep.

Similarly, farro is a fast-cooking grain that makes food prep a breeze. Fifteen to twenty minutes are all it takes to bring farro from hard grain to fork-ready. Farro is thought to be the world's most ancient grain, and it packs about twice as much protein and fiber as the wheat we typically consume. Interestingly, the gluten in farro is thought to be weaker than that of wheat, making it easier to digest. When cooked, farro has a bite similar to al dente pasta, but the grains are just slightly larger then brown rice. Farro is my favorite of the bunch in terms of mouthfeel; I like the softness of the grains in comparison to both wheatberry and millet, while still getting the texture I expect from a grain.

Farro with beans
Farro with beans

Final Thoughts

If you want to be a food trendsetter, consider:

  • Wheatberries are loaded with fiber, protein, iron, and a bevy of other vitamins and minerals
  • Millet is gluten-free and packed with fiber, protein, vitamin B, and other good stuff
  • Farro is fiber- and protein-rich and has a satisfying mouthfeel

The Taste Factor

I treated all three grains as cold summer salads. I sauteed vegetables with spices and added them to the cooked grains. I then refrigerated the salads for serving later in the day. They can be served at any temperature, making them ideal for make-ahead meals or pot lucks. Because their intrinsic flavors are subtle, the grains took the flavor of whatever they were tossed with. I cooked all of them in a little vegetable stock to impart flavor in the first step of the process, and that seemed to create a good base flavor for the rest of my ingredients. In terms of flavor absorption, millet was the star. Because the grains are smaller and, it seems, more porous, they took the flavors very well. Both the wheatberries and the farro benefited from a good stir just before serving. The graininess of each came through the other flavors, with farro shining brightest.

Overall, these grains can be treated similarly to rice and, to the extent that I used them as replacements for summer pasta salads, similarly to pasta. Additionally, they can be used as filler for vegetarian burgers. If I had to rank them, I'd give farro the edge over millet and wheatberry, in that order. Regardless of which grain you choose, you can rest easy knowing that you have made a healthy choice.

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